Last fall Court Theatre gave us An Iliad and its nameless Poet—a lone singer, stowed away in some abandoned, urban hole-in-the-ground, who, miserable, weary, but compulsively articulate, kept us mesmerized while he poured out the epic of Achilles’s rage. The show closed weeks ago, but go to Court now and you might think the Poet has returned.
Although you’ll find him somewhat altered. In An Iliad he was a ferocious-looking white guy with a shaved head, a beard, and a Columbine-style duster. This time around he’s an earnest young black man from the American south, living in Harlem during the Great Depression. He tends to dress in suits. And he no longer concerns himself with ancient Greek history. He’s become the hero of Ralph Ellison’s celebrated 1952 novel, Invisible Man, and his subject matter has changed accordingly.
But it’s him, all right. He still lacks a name, and when we first meet him he’s hidden in the bowels of the city, as before, squatting in a “building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” Most important, he’s still got an epic to sing and a compulsive need to sing it. And as performed by Teagle Bougere in Christopher McElroen’s world premiere staging of an adaptation by Oren Jacoby, he’s still mesmerizing.
Ellison’s book certainly has sweep enough for him. Invisible Man is basically a political picaresque, like Candide or Gulliver’s Travels—but even bleaker and angrier in its essence, if possible. It follows its central character—let’s call him “I.M.”—through a great swath of 20th-century African-American experience, starting with his childhood down south, where his dying grandfather advises living “with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome [the whites] with yeses,” the old man says, scandalizing the family, “undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust right open.”
Of course, I.M. is too innocent to understand this bitter admonition at first. He’s got to learn by doing, and he’s done and done and done. Valedictorian of his high school class, he’s degraded by the local white aristocracy when they invite him to give a speech on humility at one of their dinners. Recipient of a full scholarship to a black college, he’s betrayed by the college president he idolizes. A dedicated and extraordinarily effective member of the Communist Party (called the “Brotherhood” here), he’s sacrificed by higher-ups playing a bigger game. Even a trip to the hospital after an accident results in doctors finding nefarious ways to exploit him.
To a white philanthropist, I.M. is a means to redemption. To a Garveyite black nationalist, he’s a stooge of the oppressor. To a motherly black lady, he’s a credit to the race. To the white wife of a colleague, he’s, well . . . I.M. is dragged through identity after identity until he realizes that the people conferring them don’t actually see him at all. He’s invisible to them—a blank screen on which they project their ideologies and anxieties, stereotypes, agendas, and passions. He retires from view as a way of preserving what’s left of himself.
Anyone who thinks this notion of invisibility is a product of the period Ellison depicts or the time during which he wrote—anyone who believes we’ve progressed beyond that sort of dehumanization—ought to consider all that Americans left and right have projected onto Barack Obama these last few years. They might also look at the extent to which the Republican candidates for president have turned the entire black community into phantoms.
At about 600 pages, Ellison’s book is a sprawling work of art. And so is Jacoby’s stage version. The Court production runs for three hours but seems to want to go on longer. At times you can almost hear Jacoby saying, “Oh, I can’t leave that out! Just this one thing more!” Which has led to passages of confusion in an otherwise powerful script. Don’t let that keep you from seeing this Invisible Man, though. Alex Koch’s projections, in particular, are worth the price of admission, and I can tell you right now that you won’t see a stronger ensemble this season.